Tony Finau, encouraged by mother, poised for PGA Tour breakthrough
By Dave Reardon
HONOLULU – Kelepi Finau didn't know a wedge from a driver. But that didn't stop him from teaching his sons the basics of golf.
Plus, his wife, Vena, insisted on it.
"This is her project," said Kelepi, as he watched his son, Tony, play putt-putt with kids Monday at the Shriners Hospital for Children-Honolulu. "I feel like mothers and wives are smart when it comes to this kind of thing. Otherwise, I would've had them playing football."
Who knows? Maybe Tony and Gipper would've been pro football stars, like their cousin, Haloti Ngata. Or a famous NBA player, like another relative, Jabari Parker. Instead, due to Vena's prescience, Tony got on track to become the first PGA Tour player of Samoan and Tongan ethnicity.
"At times it'd be tough, like when we drove past the park on the way to (golf) practice and we'd see the other guys playing football or basketball," Tony said.
But the brothers stayed the course and stayed on the course. And now Tony, 26, is a blossoming star and among the field for this week's Sony Open in Hawaii at Waialae Country Club.
Monday, he arrived at the hospital with a check from his foundation and smiles from his heart.
"I knew there'd be a lot of Polynesian kids here and I wanted to come and connect with them," said Tony, father of two young children with his wife, Alayna, of Laie. "I'm not different from them and there's no reason they can't someday do what I'm doing."
When they were 6 and 7, Vena wanted Gipper and Tony – the most rambunctious and closest in age of the seven Finau children – to play a sport that would keep them occupied and keep them together. And something they could play for a lifetime.
"We didn't know at that time (they'd become pro golfers)," Kelepi said. "This was literally babysitting."
But Tony had an inkling. Despite seeing few other Polynesians on golf courses where they grew up in Salt Lake City, he knew you could look different than the other players and succeed. He'd seen someone else do exactly that.
"I watched Tiger (Woods) win the Masters in 1997, and that was right around the time I started playing golf. Tiger, he made it look exciting and made it look athletic."
Plus, he understood his family had made sacrifices.
"My dad didn't really know how to play golf, but he self-learned so he could teach us," Tony said. "We didn't have the funds for lessons, to travel for tournaments. But somehow, we found a way."
That included clubs from garage sales and scrounging for balls. And the generosity of an understanding professional at the Jordan River Par 3 who saw their potential, Richard Mason.
"He gave us a place to practice and play for free," Tony said.
Tony did well enough at West High School to earn a scholarship to BYU. Instead, he went pro at 17, and Gipper wasn't far behind. Some thought it was a big mistake, but at least one early supporter did not.
"(Tony's) hands, his wedge game and his putting were great for a big guy," said former University of Hawaii football coach June Jones, who played rounds with both while they were teenagers. "And he was poised and he hit the ball a mile. That's what I immediately saw. It's worked out because he remained committed to it. It could still for Gipper (who has played events on the Web.com Tour), too."
Jones took the Finau brothers on his missionary trips to Samoa, and let them stay at his home in Dallas, where they worked with PGA of America instructor Randy Smith.
"Back in 2010, Randy said of Tony, 'June, this kid is destined to win.'"
That hasn't happened yet, but it seems inevitable. As a PGA Tour rookie last year, he notched five top-10 finishes, including a tie for 10th at the PGA Championship, and earned $2,095,186. He's already banked $318,187 this season.
"My goal now is to win. That's really the next step, to win at the highest level," he said.
When he does, his first thoughts will be of his mother, the person who somehow knew he should play golf.
In 2011, Vena Finau died in a car accident.
Tony was struggling at the time, and considered giving up the game. Kelepi convinced him he owed it not only to himself but to Vena to continue.
"He's never alone now," the father said. "Wherever the wind is blowing, that's her."
Said Tony: "I know she's there, I do believe she's following me."
This article was written by Dave Reardon from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.